Sex Outside the Lines

March 15th, 2018

I first heard of  Chris Donaghue and his book Sex Outside The Lines via the Sex Nerd Sandra Podcast. It’s been quite a while since I listened to that particular episode, but it piqued my interest. In it,  Donaghue, a therapist who helps clients overcome their issues with sex, makes the argument that cultural views of sex shame healthy sex and lead to dysfunctional sex lives.

In Sex Outside the Lines,  Donaghue expands on this argument with examples from his clients as well as supporting arguments from other professionals (therapists, doctors, and the like).

I was fully prepared to enjoy this book. The idea that the cultural view of sex is misguided and narrow is one that I can totally get with. It leads to the shaming of all sorts, marginalization of people who have nonstandard sexual orientations, relationship dynamics, and kinks, and internalized until very few people are living an “authentic sexuality.” How can you go wrong with a book that expands on this?

For starters, it’s not entirely clear who Sex Outside the Lines is for.  I suppose the subtitle, “Authentic Sexuality in a Sexually Dysfunctional Culture,” made me feel like it was written for someone who wanted to discover their own authentic sexuality. But the book does not read as accessible to the average reader. As someone who writes and reads about sex, I found it a bit alienating. Donaghue uses hyphen-laden adjectives that he clearly relies upon in his practice, but they’re wordy and not standard at all. This is one reason why Sex Outside the Lines might be better for professionals than consumers.

If I continue, the tone of this book is also repellant in other ways. The author sometimes sounds pretentious and opinionated in a way that’s hard to swallow… and I generally agree with him. I cannot imagine that anyone who is on the fence about whether society has a dysfunctional view of sex would pick up this book and be swayed, let alone someone who is actively in the other camp.

I have a physical copy, so it’s unfortunate that I don’t have a digital reference at my side. There were a number of points where Donaghue had written something that I would have highlighted on my Kindle. Many of these instances were him describing the way society/partners/sex therapists disregard a person’s natural sexual proclivities as abusive. This terminology seems extreme to me.

Furthermore, he makes the argument in several places that any kink is valid and should always be fully lived. I think it can be assumed that Donaghue means when it’s safe, legal and consensual, but he doesn’t explicitly state as such.

He also ignores the fact that compromises must be made within relationships. While I believe that people ignore sexual compatibility all too often and it can lead to disastrous results, I am not sure that I buy that this is always the most important type of compatibility or that sex is a cure-all for any relationship ailment. If someone was looking for a reason to be sexually entitled and selfish, then reading Sex Outside the Lines without further guidance might encourage unhealthy behavior.

Donaghue’s sex-positive push is so forceful that is can feel like asexual erasure, despite him mentioning asexuality when he discusses the way that society discounts people who are not straight. And straight people who do identify as monogamous and marriage-minded might feel attacked by the book.

I also found that it was difficult to follow the overarching themes of each chapter and the segues between the sections therein. When you look at the table of contents, you see that the second chapter is all about why people fear sex, for example. But when you’re reading that chapter, it’s too easy to forget. This is exacerbated by some repetition of the content.

Finally, Donaghue often quotes others, but the references feel abrupt because he simply inserts the quote and reference without really explaining the context of those original quotes. I am not sure that the sources are actually making the same arguments that he is. I would much rather have brief introduction to the study/book/report and firmer explanation of how it ties into whatever argument the author is trying to make in that paragraph.

This all comes as a disappointment because Donaghue came off as likable and reasonable in the podcast that first introduced me to him. He speaks as someone who appears to be an effective therapist, but something is lost in translation when it comes to print.

While I agree with the general theme of Sex Outside the Lines, the book leaves a bit to be desired and an unusual taste in my mouth. I am not sure what it accomplishes or who I would recommend it to, and it’s not because I think within the lines sexually. Perhaps Donaghue is just not the person who should be writing this thesis.


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